(UPDATE: See update at the bottom of this article.)
As we’ve reported previously, scam artists using thousands of fake Google business listings (Google My Business) have defrauded legitimate businesses or have charged exorbitant fees to consumers. Last week, Google announced the status of efforts by Google and a team from the University of California, San Diego, to research who are behind the fake listings and to take measures to combat the scammers.
(The full report can be read here: “Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps”)
What is a fake listing?
Unlike email-based scams selling knock-off products online, local listing scams require physical proximity to potential victims. As SmallBusiness.com explained in our earlier post, scammers set up business listings claiming to be locksmiths, plumbers, electricians, and other contractors. The criminals operating these fake listings cycle through non-existent postal addresses and disposable VoIP phone numbers even as their listings are discovered and disabled. The fake addresses for these businesses were irrelevant as the contractors would travel directly to potential victims.
Another one in 10 fake listings belonged to real businesses that the scammers had improperly claimed ownership over, such as hotels and restaurants. While making a reservation or ordering a meal was indistinguishable from the real thing, behind the scenes, the scam artists would deceive the actual business into paying referral fees for organic interest.
How does Google My Business now verify information?
Google says it has made significant changes to how it verifies addresses.
Formerly, to verify information in a Google My Business listing, Google mailed a physical postcard to individuals at the business address. Fake contractors would request hundreds of postcard verifications to non-existent suites at a single address, such as 123 Main St #456 and 123 Main St #789, or to stores that provided PO boxes.
Google has changed how it verifies addresses. Improvements include prohibiting bulk registrations at most addresses, preventing businesses from relocating impossibly far from their original address without additional verification, and detecting and ignoring intentionally mangled text in address fields designed to confuse the Google algorithms.
85% | Percentage of fake listings now discovered before appearing on Google Maps
70% | Percentage drop in abusive listings its peak back in June 2015
70% | Percentage drop in number of impressions abusive listings seen
According to a Google statement, “while fake listings may slip through our defenses from time to time, we are constantly improving our systems to better serve both users and business owners.”
Update April 14, 2017 | Search Engine Land columnist Joy Hawkins challenges Google’s claims that fewer than 0.5% of local searches lead to fake listings. Here are some of her rebuttals.
1. Google My Business support issues
Advanced verification will never solve problems if the operators looking at the listings don’t know how to tell what’s real vs. what’s not.
2. Virtual offices
The number of fake listings I see on a regular basis using virtual offices is enormous, and these listings seem to go completely undetected by Google. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed a single case where listings got automatically flagged for using a virtual office service.
3. Multiple listings that are set up using employees’ home addresses
I had to argue with Google for months last year to get them to remove a listing for a marketing company in Toronto that set up multiple listings in multiple cities using the home addresses of their employees.
4. Keyword stuffing in business names
There currently is no penalty in place for businesses that decide to add extra words to their business name to help with their ranking. When reported, Google might actually remove the keywords from the title, but then the business owner can just go add them back via the Google My Business dashboard.
5. Review spam
The number of fake reviews I’ve seen reported on the forums seems to be on the rise. It’s not just business owners who pay for fake positive reviews, but also people who leave negative reviews for their competitors.
6. Photo spamSpammers will upload tons of photos highlighting their services on the listings of their competitors.
Previously on SmallBusiness.com
Alert: Fake Locksmiths Using Google Listings to Scam Customers, Harm Legitimate Small Businesses | 2016